Visiting the Thai-Burma border (2)

With KWO, posted by Angie Alexander, Funding Director
On 3 October we visited the baby kits project in the camp on the Thai/Burma (Myanmar) border, run by Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO). We have been supporting this project now since 2001 and I was very excited to be able to see the impact of the work first hand. The baby kits are given to mothers when they are pregnant and they include essentials like soap, toweling nappies and a sarong, as well as basic health information for the mother and child. More information is here – http://refugeesinternationaljapan.org/kwo_kits_2013

– The camp
It was a long journey to the camp by car on very bumpy roads. The camp is surrounded by large hills covered in thick jungle and is based next to a small river. It is a truly beautiful spot that quite belies the realities of the 3,800 people living there.

Camp in the jungle - photo by Alex
Camp in the jungle – photo by Alex

The camp is spread out along the banks of the river and all the houses are very basic made with wood and bamboo. Wherever we walked, we were greeted by curious, little children shyly peeking at us from behind doorways and windows. Despite the blistering heat of the day, people were busy gathering firewood, children were doing their homework and mothers were hanging washing out to dry. There were animals all round too, sometime pigs tied up next to houses or cats, dogs and chickens roaming around the camp, looking for food.

KWO team
We met first with KWO staff and talked about the maternal and newborn health issues in the camp, with only very basic medical facilities available. Most of the mums give birth at home with a Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA), but they can also go to the clinic on site. You can see from the picture that it is an incredibly basic facility, little more than a table to sit on and a rope to pull down on in labour.

Photo by Alex
Photo by Alex

However if there are any complications at birth, there is nowhere for mums to go for help, nowhere sterile where they can have an ‘assisted’ birth or an emergency c-section. It’s a far cry from my experience of the UK health service with my 2 boys, where ‘assisted’ births are very commonplace. However despite this, reassuringly of the approximately 200 babies born a year in camp only 2% die at birth.

– The mothers
We had the chance to meet some mothers with their newborns at their homes, who had recently received baby kits. The houses are very basic, but normally have a sectioned off kitchen and some decorations or drawing on the wall. Some have lighting and one even had a tv in the corner. We met one mum who had 5 children already, but she had not been able to successfully breast feed them.

Meeting the mothers - photo by Alex
Meeting the mothers – photo by Alex

Since receiving her kit and learning about the health messages, she had understood about how before milk comes in, there is only first milk (colostrum) which is good for baby to drink. Then you have to persist and wait for the second, breast milk and then the baby will be more settled. It made me stop and think about how something as simple and cost effective as a piece of paper with health info will make a huge difference to that mum and baby’s health prospects in the long term and make her family stronger as a result. This is especially the case when the only alternative to breast milk is either diluted condensed milk, or water from boiled rice. Another mother that we met said to us, as translated from Karen; “When I was in my village, I not get anything like this. I didn’t know any health message. But now I move here and I get the baby kit and I know how to be healthy.”

– Older people

Returning from cutting firewood - photo by Alex
Returned from cutting firewood – photo by Alex

We spoke to some older people who had previously benefited from an RIJ-funded project, providing material support like sugar, milk and blankets. One grandfather was with his whole family and explained that he was happy with what he had received through the project but now his son and daughter give him money when they can. His wife was making a fishing net to sell, which takes a month to make just one. Another older lady that we met was 80 and out collecting firewood for her hut. She was very happy to talk to us and had been living in the camp since 2006 with her brother. She seemed to be well looked after by the community but was in ill health and it left me feeling really sad that this is how she is living out her days, far from home and with almost no family.

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